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Published: Thursday, 6/3/2010

$7 trillion at stake in U.S.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

AUGUSTA, Maine - A cover illustration from an old Saturday Evening Post shows a shopkeeper and woman standing on each side of a butcher-shop scale that holds a chicken. His finger pushes down on one end to add a bit of weight, while she pokes a finger up on the other side.

"It's still true today," said Dan Newcombe, whose job is to make sure the weights and measures in Maine are true. At least $24 billion in annual sales in Maine alone are weighed or measured in some way. Weighing devices that are even slightly off can have an impact of millions of dollars, either for or against the consumer.

The stakes are greater in larger states, and nationally, they could add up to $7 trillion.

More than a dozen states uncovered a pattern of fish packers adding the weight of glaze ice to the labeled weight of fish, meaning consumers ended up paying several dollars more per pound of fish.

There's no proof such scams are related to the recession, but authorities say unscrupulous businesses are more likely to cheat when states cut back on enforcement.

Correct weights affect the formulations of medicines, baby formulas, the chemicals in toothpaste, foods, and liquids people eat and drink. Americans depend on accurate measurements when they fill their gas, heating-oil tanks, buy meat at the butcher counter, pay taxi fares, or purchase a gallon of milk.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a nonregulatory federal agency and lead standards-setting organization for the country, said its work to advance an accurate measuring system underpins about half the U.S. economy, or about $7 trillion of the U.S. gross domestic product.

"As dollars become tight, it's more important than ever," said Carol Hockert, chief of NIST's Weights and Measures Division. It's important not just to consumers, who assume they are getting what they pay for, but also to businesses that need to know they're competing on a fair basis and aren't giving customers more than they paid for.

A small team of five inspectors from the Maine Agriculture Department's weight and measures program fans out across the state with their precision testing devices to ensure the accuracy of scales, pumps, and containers that measure out goods sold at wholesale and retail levels.

"States are more reactive, not proactive," said Steve Dishon of the International Society of Weighing and Measurement, the trade association for weighing and measurement industry professionals. "They react to whoever squawks the loudest."

In the case of the frozen fish scams, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent letters to two Illinois companies in October and February, threatening action over labeling issues. Wisconsin and New York have said they may take enforcement action. In Fairfield County, Ohio, two local retailers found to be selling fish at the wrong weight were assessed $500 per store.

Mr. Dishon, who's been in the business for 32 years, said the biggest causes of discrepancies are flaws in electronic transfer of data in modern-day devices. And hospitals, which are full of scales and other measuring devices, have the most discrepancies, he said.



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